Experts call for urgent passage of safeguard mechanism amid warnings from the IPCC

The safeguard mechanism, a national policy targeting greenhouse emission reduction from Australia’s largest polluters, is critical for meeting emissions reduction goals, experts say.

Therefore, it’s unsurprising that the Albanese government is working overtime to pass a set of critical bills in the next fortnight to bolster the mechanism’s efficacy.

The stakes are as high as ever, with a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warning that Australia and other developed nations must achieve net-zero emissions years ahead of schedule.

Dr Jennifer Rayner, the Climate Council’s head of advocacy, emphasised the importance of strengthening the safeguard mechanism to The New Daily.

She explained that it is one of the few strategies capable of genuinely reducing pollution from fossil fuels and major industries.

“The companies regulated by the safeguard mechanism produced 28 per cent of our total emissions, even though there’s only 215 of them,” she said.

“So getting this policy right is essential for making progress towards our emissions reduction targets for 2030.”

What is it?

The safeguard mechanism is a policy measure that aims to limit emissions from Australia’s industrial sector.

It provides a baseline limit on how much carbon pollution can be emitted by companies, such as power plants and factories, in a year.

Baselines are set by the Clean Energy Regulator in consultation with facility owners.

If a company exceeds its emissions limit, it may be subject to penalties or other consequences. This ensures that companies take responsibility for their emissions and work towards reducing their carbon footprint.

The mechanism is meant to complement other climate policies, such as the Renewable Energy Target and the Emissions Reduction Fund.

It’s hoped that by reducing emissions from large facilities, Australia will be able to better address climate change.

What’s wrong with the safeguard?

According to Christian Downie from the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance, existing legislation needs to be “tightened up” to drive genuine emission reductions.

“The problem is that there are real risks that many industries will decide not to actually reduce their emissions, but they’ll rely entirely on carbon offsets,” said Dr Downie, adding that “many of these offsets may not be worth the paper they’re written on.”

He said legislation should should be changed so that companies could not rely solely on offsets.

Carbon offsets are a way for businesses to mitigate their carbon emissions by investing in projects that reduce or remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

So instead of reducing the release of their own emissions into the atmosphere, they will instead pay to create projects that remove or reduce them from the atmosphere after their release.

The amount of carbon offsets that can be purchased is unlimited.

The Greens and crossbench senators Jacqui Lambie and David Pocock, have proposed dealing with the issue of unlimited offsets.

Safeguard reforms

Negotiations continue in Parliament over the future of the mechanism, with Climate Change Minister Chris Bowen using the release of the IPCC report to push for the urgent passage of the safeguard mechanism.

Mr Bowen said the report was an urgent reminder of the need for climate action.

“If passed, our safeguard reforms will come into effect in just 101 days from now, and with only 82 months left before 2030, it is critical that we seize every possible day of the remaining decade to drive down emissions,” he said.

The Coalition will oppose the safeguard reforms, meaning the government will need the support of the Greens and two other crossbenchers to pass.

Speaking on ABC Radio on Tuesday morning, Senator Lambie said that while the safeguard wasn’t perfect, it was a good starting point.

She called on the Greens to back the safeguard bill.

“I’m worried that it’s going to fall over and it’ll be the Greens’ fault,” Senator Lambie said.

“You need a starter point … we can keep working on reducing those emissions as we’re going along.

“[The Greens] can continue their fight over coal and gas, but for goodness sake, if that’s what you’re standing on and you don’t get anything through at all, then we’re back to where we started.”

Greens leader Adam Bandt says Labor’s vote went backwards at the last election while votes for his party and independents went up because Australians want meaningful action on climate change.

“We still have not heard a convincing explanation from the government about why they want to keep opening up coal and gas lines. We are still in discussions … [and] we will look at all solutions,” he told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday.

IPCC report

Following the release of the IPCC report on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “warp speed” action was needed to save humanity from the thin ice it’s on, and what happens this decade will be key to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or overshooting it with catastrophic consequences.

Here are some key findings from the report:

The bad news

  • The world has already warmed by 1.1 degrees and warming is likely to exceed 1.5 degrees this century under existing pledges
  • Fossil fuel use is the overwhelming driver of warming and emissions are still rising, albeit at a slower pace
  • Public and private cash spent on fossil fuels is still greater than for climate adaptation and mitigation
  • Climate adaptation efforts are poorly funded and well short of what’s needed
  • Some frontline communities and ecosystems are already reaching the limits of adaptation.

The good news

  • Renewable power sources are increasingly cost effective and enjoy broad public support
  • Some impacts are now locked in, but others can be limited by deep, rapid and sustained emissions cuts
  • The sooner emissions are reduced this decade, the greater the world’s chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees
  • Action is vital and urgent, but possible.
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